Den of Geek Book Club Interview: Elan Mastai on All Our Wrong Todays

We talked to All Our Wrong Todays author about his fave time travel stories and what it's like to adapt this book into a screenplay.

This month’s Den of Geek Book Club pick is All Our Wrong Todays, a time travel novel that posits our timeline is the wrong one. How does it know? Well, protagonist Tom Barren is the one who messed it up.

Read All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

The book is an edge-of-your-seat science fiction adventure that experiments with form and perspective and asks some gloriously existential questions in the process. We had the chance to talk to author and screenwriter Elan Mastai about writing his debut novel—where the idea came from, how it grew, and what adapting the book into a screenplay has been like.

Here’s what he told us..

Den of Geek: Where did the idea for All Our Wrong Todays start? An idea, a character, a world? … An avocado?

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Elan Mastai: Wouldn’t it be great if the whole novel came from a traumatic experience I once had with a bad avocado? When I was a kid, my grandfather had this terrific collection of old science-fiction pulps from the 1950s and 60s. I loved reading the wild, weird stories and staring at the garishly painted covers of robots and rocket ships, mad scientists and nifty technology.

But even as a kid it was clear to me that the future wasn’t turning out the way these writers and artists imagined. So, it’s a question I’ve been thinking about for a long time: what happened to the future we were supposed to have? With this novel, I came up with an answer—Tom Barren stole a time machine and screwed it up for all of us.

Was this book always written in first-person? Can you talk about that decision?

I had the idea for All Our Wrong Todays for a few years before I actually wrote it, because I just couldn’t figure out my way into the story. Until one day in July 2014, while walking my dog down the street it occurred to me, wait, what if I tell the story in the first person? Suddenly Tom’s voice popped into my head, along with the book’s first sentence: “So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed have.” I sat down on a bench, pulled out my cell, and tapped out what ended up being the first chapter of the book, while my dog moaned to continue our walk.

Now, I’ve been a screenwriter for more than a decade, but I’d never written a novel before. So, I wasn’t sure what I was even going to do with those initial paragraphs. Was it voice-over for a screenplay? It didn’t feel like a screenplay… it felt like a book. And that’s the moment I decided to write my first novel—it all started with Tom’s first person voice and didn’t exist, except as an idea, until I found it.

What are your favorite time travel stories? Did any of them act as inspirations for this book? Where does your book’s theory of time travel fit into the larger pop culture time travel discussion?

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Favorite time-travel stories include Slaughterhouse-Five, Back to the Future, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Looper, Primer, 12 Monkeys, Lost, The Time-Traveler’s Wife, The Terminator & T2, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Star Trek: First Contact, the ST:TNG finale “All Good Things,” and of course Groundhog Day. I definitely felt their influence, but none of them were direct inspirations because I was trying to write a time-travel story unlike any I’d come across before. I wanted to do something that respected a genre I love but came at it in a hopefully unexpected and different way—otherwise why bother?

I’ve always had a pet peeve about time travel: that pretty much every example I know treats time travel like you open a door and walk through it to the past. But of course we know that the Earth is always moving, like, really, really fast. At the equator, the planet rotates at 1,000 miles per hour while simultaneously orbiting the sun, as the sun itself moves through the galaxy. Any scientifically plausible model of time travel has to incorporate orbital mechanics. To me, that’s where the fun began. Because other stories typically ignored that obvious fact, it meant I had a fresh way to build my own model.

A novel about our timeline being The Darkest Timeline feels very topical, but I imagine you wrote a good chunk of it prior to some of the more extreme happenings in U.S. and world politics. Where was the world at when you were writing All Our Wrong Todays? Do you think you would write this book any differently if you were starting it now?

That’s such an interesting and difficult question. Touring with the book and getting to read sections out loud at events, I’ve been struck by passages that seem more relevant today than when I wrote them—which is weird and honestly sometimes upsetting.

I finished the book in late-spring 2016, but much of the story was set in place from 2014 to 2015. It was in many ways a different political era. But… part of my job as a writer is to look around and try to make sense not just of where we’ve been and where we are, but also where we might be going. I felt there were tensions and conflicts building up inside our culture that would need to erupt. I can’t pretend I knew exactly what those eruptions would look like, but I was thinking a lot about it.

What I do know, from my personal life as much as anything else, is that big things, seemingly permanent things, can change so much quicker than you’d ever believe. I’ve felt it in my own life: one day you’re living in a world that makes sense and the next day you can feel like you’ve woken up in a whole other world, one with very different rules and very different expectations. I felt like that the morning after my mom died. I also felt like that the morning after my daughter was born. Change can feel like a tidal wave. Sometimes it’s one that drowns you and sometimes, if you’re lucky, it’s one that lifts you up.

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Would I write a different book today? Probably in some ways, not in others. I think it would’ve been an angrier book if I started it in spring 2018, but that wouldn’t necessary mean a better book. And as an author, I’m aware that not all my possible readers share my personal politics. I actually kind of like it when readers who subscribe to different political points of view see something meaningful and reflective in the book, even if it’s not what I intended. Because to me that means the book is alive and complex. It’s a story, not an essay, and even if it’s a story with a point, I’m totally okay when readers find their own point. That’s their right.

It must have been so much fun imagining the world of Tom’s original timeline. Were there any technologies that didn’t make it into the final book version or ideas that felt too anachronistic/futuristic to fit in?

Oh yeah, super fun. Originally I had more biotechnology and genetically engineered innovations. But I made the decision that Tom’s timeline would be one of hard technology, not wet technology, because that’s how people in the 50s and 60s imagined the future. Machines. Devices. Contraptions. Metal and energy, not cells and genes. There’s a lot of virtualization and projection, but very little tinkering with DNA. If we project fifty years into our future, I think we’ll see a lot more genetic innovation, for good and for ill, but this was a future specifically as imagined by the post-WW2 generation, which meant technology that’s built, not grown.

I love what your book has to subversively say about the natures of utopia vs. dystopia, and the assumptions we make about both. Can you talk about exploring those themes in All Our Wrong Todays?

A big reason I told the story in the first person is that I wanted the descriptions of Tom’s self-described utopia to be specifically from the point of view of someone who grew up there and takes much of it for granted, not questioning that it is the way the world is supposed to be. If I’d written in the third person, it would be me, as the author, saying this rather than a character with assumptions and blind spots that he only questions when he finds himself in the “wrong” timeline: our so-called real world.

The central premise of the book—what if our reality is a dystopian worst-case scenario triggered by a time-travel accident?—was my hopefully unexpected and entertaining way to explore what the futures we imagine say about the world we currently live in. And how those imagined futures have evolved in recent decades from sunny utopia to dank dystopia. I like to challenge and provoke people’s assumptions, not just of something as big as where we’re going as a society, but on the smaller more personal level of the characters, surprising readers with the decisions they make and where the plot takes them. Because to me it’s as much as a story about our own personal utopias and dystopias, and the ways each of us might question the future we think we’re supposed to have. But, you know, with jokes and flying cars too.

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Have there been interpretations or reactions to All Our Wrong Todays that have surprised you?

Totally. I mean, first of all, it sometimes feels crazy that the book even exists in the world, since for so long the story only existed in my head. I was in an airport two days ago and they had a stack of my novel for sale and I had one of those trippy moments where I was, like, oh yeah, this story doesn’t belong to me anymore, it belongs to whoever decides to read it.

In terms of surprising reactions, I mean, what I find funniest is that often the most polarized reactions argue the exact opposite things about the same book—that it’s too utopian or too dystopian, too optimistic or too cynical, too jokey or too serious, too science-heavy or too science-light, too feminist or too sexist, too fast-paced or too slow-paced, too character-driven or too plot-driven, too long an ending or too abrupt an ending.

Literally for every critique I’ve read of the book I’ve also read the exact opposite critique. Which I love. Because it means the book is a mirror and each reader’s reflection shines brighter than my own. If everyone interpreted it the same way, I’d feel the book had failed to lift off from the gravity well of my intentions.

In addition to being a novelist, you are also a screenwriter and you are working on the screenplay of All Our Wrong Todays. What is like adapting your own work? Do you feel more or less compelled to stay faithful to it? Are there aspects of the story that take up more or less narrative space in the film form than the book form?

Adapting my own novel has been a challenge, but a good one, a fun one. Mostly. Some days, I’ll be honest, it’s tough—there’s no way to compress a 369-page book into a two-hour movie without giving up something. But I decided early on in the process that I’d rather write a fantastic movie that diverts in certain ways from the book rather than a perfectly faithful but dramatically inert adaptation. And there are things you can do in a movie, visually and emotionally, that you can’t do in a book.

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So, I’m embracing the medium while still being pretty faithful to the novel. Movies have to move, they’re watched in real-time, minute-to-minute, and generally audiences have less patience for the interesting tangents that a book has time and space to explore. So overall the narrative is more streamlined for the movie, even though it’s still very much the same story with the same characters—and a few brand-new plot twists that will hopefully shock and delight fans of the novel.

Follow-up: Who would you dreamcast in the major roles?

I’m going to awkwardly squirm out of answering this because it’s an excitingly relevant question at the moment.

What else, if anything, are you working on right now?

I’m most of the way through a new novel. It’s similar in tone and scope to All Our Wrong Todays, but it’s unrelated in terms of plot and character. I’m also working on some pretty fun movie projects which I can’t say much about that are making their slow but steady way to production.